No question about it.  If you’re over a certain age (40+ is one common benchmark and the “protected class” recognized by federal law) it’s almost impossible to venture out into the job market without wondering if maybe, just maybe, you will lose out on certain job opportunities due to age discrimination.  There’s no question, after all, that our society has a long and unhealthy habit of celebrating the virtues of youth over those of experience, and the situation is compounded further due to the demographic fact there are a lot more folks over 40 (aka Baby Boomers) out seeking work at the moment than there have been in previous times.

So how prevalent is the phenomenon of age discrimination?  And what can an older worker do, if anything, to diminish the effects of it?

For starters, while others may disagree, I personally don’t see all that much “overt” age discrimation out there in the form of companies steadfastly refusing to hire older workers, carte blanche, as a matter of principle.  Along the same lines, I don’t see too many cases where “pure” gender or racial discrimination seems to be in play, either, although I certainly don’t mean to suggest such cases don’t exist — or that there aren’t some employers out there practicing unabashed, inexcusable bigotry.  What I think the average 40+ job seeker needs to focus on more, however, is the soft form of age discrimination that is practiced commonly in today’s world of work.  These are the companies who aren’t intentionally discriminating against older, more experienced workers, but who are still basing their hiring decisions in part on various unconscious stereotypes they hold with regard to employees in the 40-50+ age range.  I think this form of discrimination is the major culprit behind the age discrimination challenge and the one that most people need to concentrate on overcoming, if they’re seeking to improve their interviewing success rate.

Along these lines, since I doubt any of us believes for a second that anti-discrimination laws will fully protect older workers against these softer forms of discrimination, job hunters concerned about this issue should take distinct, proactive steps to address the matter.  This prevention starts (I’m going to say something here that won’t make me very popular) with the acceptance that certain elements of the “older worker” stereotype actually have a grain of truth to them — and that acknowledging and understanding these specific perceptions is the single best recipe for defeating them.

Hear me out here.  For example, I would propose that the reason many older workers end up losing out on positions to younger candidates is due to underlying employer fears that workers over a certain age might:

•  Have outdated skill sets and not be totally up-to-speed in their professional field or area of expertise
•  Not be familiar with modern technology and the standard computer applications used in most modern jobs today
•  Want too much money and other benefits, based on a 20+ year track record of pay increases and vacation accrual
•  Be overqualified for certain positions and will quickly become bored by “settling” for a lower-level job
•  Be coasting toward retirement and not be willing to work as hard as a younger, eager-to-please candidate
•  Not be able to (or want to) take direction from a younger boss or younger colleagues who have less experience
•  Be set in their ways and unwilling to learn new things or adapt to new methods of doing business
•  Have health issues that will lead to high insurance costs or high rates of absenteeism
•  Not be able to keep up with a fast-growing company or a job that requires a rigorous, 50-60 hour schedule

While I’m sure every one of my readers out there over 40 is bristling at the above suggestions, would anybody actually disagree that the above items are, at heart, the perceptions that likely lead to most instances of age discrimination?  They certainly are the root of the problem from what I’ve observed, and since there unfortunately isn’t a magic wand that will make such prejudices instantly go away, I counsel many of my older clients to take matters into their own hands — and assess whether their interviewing approach or resume might play into any of these stereotypes.  If so, there definitely are specific steps one can take to combat these damaging perceptions and convince employers that one’s age, or experience level, isn’t going to be a liability.  The key, however, is for older candidates to first accept responsibility for this “burden of proof” themselves.  It may not be fair, and in a perfect world our legal system would offer complete protection in these matters, but if we set idealism aside — and focus on the immediate steps that help older workers get hired — then I’m afraid I don’t see much of an alternative.

So if this issue concerns you, take some time to make an honest assessment of whether any of the items on the above list might apply in your own particular situation.  If so, then you should start thinking about how to demonstrate to employers — proactively, in both your written materials and during the interview process — that any potential stereotypes they might try to connect to your age and experience level are groundless.  For example, if you’re a marketing executive who is willing to admit that you haven’t kept up with modern Internet marketing concepts, you need to quickly take a class or engage in rigorous self-study to address this vulnerability.  If instead you’re getting a lot of pushback on your previous salary level being too high, then you might need to conduct some salary research and reset your expectations, if they’re truly out of touch with the times.  For each and every element listed above, there are some specific mitigating tactics that can be used, once one accepts the quasi-legitimacy these stereotypes are grounded upon, in the first place.

Above all, if you’re in the older worker category and concerned about age discrimination, I’d encourage you to think long and hard about how you’d answer one specific question if given the chance: “Why should I (the employer) hire you, with your 20-30 years of experience, over a younger worker with 5-10 years of relevant experience?”  Until you can convincingly answer this question in your own mind, and outline the value of your experience in a structured, positive way, you’ve probably got more work to do before you’re ready for prime time — and able to consistently convince hiring managers that your age and experience level will be a tremendous asset, not an obstacle, to the success of their organization!